Known for her wise-cracking, quick delivery, Natasha Lyonne’s newest role in the Peacock series “Poker Face” grants her an opportunity to play a character with a personality trait she’s never played before. Lyonne’s character, Charlie, likes people.
Charlie’s still got zingers, but Lyonne says the character is partly inspired by Jeff Bridges’ famed character, The Dude, in “The Big Lebowski.”
She’s “a person a little bit set back who’s kind of got sun on their face,” said Lyonne, “I’m usually more of a city slicker and someone who avoids getting hit by taxis and runs down in a subway.”
Adds creator Rian Johnson, “Charlie’s very open. She’s very sunny. That kind of blew Natasha’s mind. She’s like, ‘Oh, this will be a new thing for me to play. I like people.’ The natural kind of like acidity and sharpness of Natasha’s personality, combined with a character who has a genuinely sunny outlook … I find it’s super watchable.”
“Poker Face” is a mystery series, so it fits Johnson’s wheelhouse, as the writer, director of “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion.”
Charlie has a keen ability to automatically know when someone is lying. After events in the first episode send her on the run from a mafia boss and his enforcer — played by Benjamin Bratt — she sets off in her car to drive… away from trouble. In each stand-alone episode, Charlie encounters new people, a murder and, of course, lies, that make her want to figure out what happened.
Johnson describes it as a howdunit and unapologetically a procedural. Charlie knows who commits the murder but has to figure out how.
“We follow the same format with every single episode. We show the murder, then we flashback and see where Charlie was during the murder. We catch up with the murder and then she solves it. Keeping that procedural consistency was a big, big deal to me because when I tune in to TV, part of what I love is hanging out with the same friends over and over. It’s a comforting pattern of getting a new thrill from something that I know what to expect from every single week. There’s great joy in that… I embrace it completely.”
As Charlie encounters a new mystery each week, there’s a revolving door of notable guest stars throughout the 10-episode first season, including Lil Rey Henry, Tim Meadows, Luis Guzman, Chloë Sevigny and even Nick Nolte — who appears in an episode that Lyonne directed, which she described as a “sensational” experience.
“Strong recommend for literally everyone. Now, granted, that might get chaotic because Nick likes somebody who is pretty serious, but yeah, I would say I recommend it to all hobbyists.”
Lyonne describes acting opposite so many guest stars as mostly great and seems amused by those that were perhaps more challenging.
“Sometimes somebody comes in and it’s just really joyous. It’s like making music with this really cool musician you didn’t know you were going to play so well with. Other times it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, so this person just doesn’t memorize their lines. OK, this is going to be a long, long day.’ It’s sort of a mixed bag sometimes. I would say that the caliber of people that we were able to put together is definitely, maybe like 99% really, really awesome. There were a few that were like, ‘This is sticky business.’ You never know. You never know.”
Another reason Charlie is able to pick up on something that seems off is because she pays attention to those around her and likes the underdogs, those who are ignored or dismissed by others.
“Charlie’s always going to have her sympathies with the little guy which is similar to Columbo in a way,” said Johnson.
It’s a trait Lyonne is also drawn to both personally and professionally. She has a production company, “Animal Pictures” with Maya Rudolph which co-produces “Poker Face” along with Rudolph’s Apple TV+ comedy, “Loot.” It was also behind Lyonne’s popular series “Russian Doll” on Netflix. Lyonne says she gravitates to creative people, including friends Jenji Kohan (who created “Orange is the New Black”), Amy Poehler, Clea DuVall and Janicza Bravo, and there’s joy in creating content for “misfits and outsiders.”
“We kind of go on a journey together. You’re communicating with the weirdo kids in the back of the class because, you know, they watch stuff, too.”